The most interesting thing about Tuesday’s Right to Repair hearing in Washington state was what the tech lobbyists wouldn’t say.
Representatives of manufacturing and technology trade groups largely avoided answering direct questions from Washington legislators, who seemed receptive to a bill aimed at empowering independent and small business repairs. Despite the opposition’s well-worn description of Right to Repair as “a solution in search of a problem,” legislators had plenty of problems to throw at the lobbyists.
Why did I have to mail my Xbox to Microsoft to replace a single fan? Can repair agents steal companies’ secret designs during repairs? Do I own this phone, or am I seemingly just renting it?
“We would like to have more robust conversations … Your comments will be taken into serious consideration,” Charlie Brown, representing the Consumer Technology Association, said in reply to Sen. Derek Stanford’s (D) Xbox questions. (Robust conversations and serious consideration seem like a lot of work to tell someone that Microsoft doesn’t sell replacement fans).
“I would love to follow up with you and have some of [my companies] walk you through the process that these devices take,” said Samantha Kershul, regional executive director for electronics lobbying group TechNet, when asked by Sen. Doug Erickson (D) about intellectual property theft. “I’d love to connect you with some of my companies after the committee.” (Is the maker of Red Dead Redemption 2 going to fly to Seattle to show how you can pirate the game for friends while replacing a PS4 hard drive?)
“Senator, clearly there are a lot of issues that we need to walk through,” Brown told Sen. Marko Liias (D), when asked why owning an iPhone is different from owning other products. After vouching for warranties and authorized repair networks (and stating that you can be sure they won’t “put TikTok on your phone”), Brown said they needed “to have a serious discussion.” (Which is quite a lengthy non-response to the question, “Do I own this iPhone, or just rent it?”).
It’s not surprising that lobbyists working against Right to Repair bills prefer to meet politicians in private. It’s their preferred venue for discussing hackers moving to Nebraska and potential injuries from punctured batteries. What is surprising is that they seem to have largely surrendered their ground on public discussion, leaving motivated repair backers lots of room to share real-world numbers and experiences.
iFixit’s own Olivia Webb spoke on behalf of the 1.3 million people in Washington who had visited iFixit’s website in 2019. Webb noted that she came to iFixit with little repair knowledge, but had since worked on her sister’s phone. Because the part wasn’t original, however, the repair was ultimately unsuccessful.
“Hopefully, this shows you that people want to repair their devices, they want access to the information and tools, but the manufacturers are making it difficult,” Webb said.
Repair veteran (and livestreamer of everything) Louis Rossman noted that some companies go further. Apple, Rossman testified, instructed the manufacturer of a MacBook charging control chip not to sell the part to anybody outside Apple. As a result, Rossman and others can’t fix that part of a MacBook; a customer has to have Apple replace the entire logic board for $1,500 or more, and lose their data.
“So when people say that this bill is a solution in search of a problem, I’ve had thousands of customers that want their data back that disagree,” Rossman said.
Tarah Wheeler of securerepairs cast shade on the security concerns raised by device makers.
“It is simply not the case that allowing someone to swap out a phone screen will let that person reverse-engineer every bit of software on the phone or access private data,” Wheeler said. “Apple and Google can still design phones that protect user security while allowing private repairs.”
The committee seemed receptive to the stories and arguments presented Tuesday. It helps that the bill was repeatedly framed not as a matter of schematics and APIs, but jobs and consumer choice.
Sen. Bob Hasegawa (D), sponsor of the bill, started the hearing by describing it as “just a good small-business bill.” The tech giants, he said, have plenty of advocates, especially in Seattle. Not everybody can work for tech giants, though, and there’s a lot of opportunity for entrepreneurship in servicing the tech that surrounds us, Hasegawa said.
He finished with a story about how, after having his own smartphone battery replaced at a kiosk, the original manufacturer refused to offer other repairs on it, because it had been worked on by an unauthorized agent.
“Why can’t people work on their own stuff, or hire somebody to work on their stuff?”
Repair advocates have an answer, but trade groups seem to prefer a serious, robust conversation in a closed office.
Top image by Cacophony/WikiMedia